Responding to Differing Views:

The Objection from the Separation of Church and State

Does traditional marriage impose religious belief on others?

Many supporters of same-sex marriage object that there are no sound secular arguments for a man-woman marriage policy. For this reason, it is argued, defining marriage as between a man and a woman is an establishment of religious belief as law, in violation of the spirit and intent of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the political doctrine of the separation of church and state.

Our response is two-fold: (1) There exist many secular defenses of traditional marriage laws, including those that appear on this website. (2) Even so, secular reasoning (while more broadly persuasive in a pluralistic society) is not inherently more objective or any less based in irreducible moral conviction than religious belief.

Objection

Many supporters of same-sex marriage object that there are no sound secular arguments for a man-woman marriage policy. Because opposition to same-sex marriage is fundamentally religious, they say, defining marriage as between a man and a woman is an establishment of religious belief as law, in violation of the spirit and intent of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the political doctrine of the separation of church and state. Moreover, some argue that religious beliefs — and the strong moral convictions that often flow from religious belief — should have no place in the public square, and that secular reasoning alone should be used when debating law and public policy.


Introduction

Our response is two-fold: (1) There exist many secular defenses of traditional marriage laws, including those that appear on this website. (2) Even so, secular reasoning (while more broadly persuasive in a pluralistic society) is not inherently more objective or any less based in irreducible moral conviction than religious belief.

Secular Arguments for Traditional Marriage

Contrary to the charges of many same-sex marriage supporters, there exist well-established secular arguments for a traditional marriage institution. Indeed, all of the arguments in favor of traditional marriage that appear on this website rest on secular premises — none require a belief in God or rely on the sacred texts or doctrines of any particular religion. Furthermore, none of the legal arguments currently being put forward in various U.S. states in defense of traditional marriage laws depend on religious belief. Most of them make appeals primarily to political philosophy, anthropology, and social science. For this reason, objectors are simply mistaken when they claim that a man-woman definition of marriage establishes the beliefs of a particular religion as law.

The conjugal view of marriage is not an intrinsically Christian idea. Rather, many non-Christian thinkers, including those who lived prior to Christ or without any knowledge of Christianity, expressed a man-woman view of marriage even when they may have lived in a highly homoerotic society. These secular thinkers include Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Musonius Rufus, Xenophanes, and Plutarch.1 In the twenty-first century, many individuals have argued in favor of traditional marriage in secular terms. These individuals even include irreligious gay rights activists.2

Marriage, unlike purely ecclesiastical rites like baptism, carries more than religious significance. Traditional marriage has been enshrined in many cultures by people of a variety of religious beliefs because its appeal is more than just theological — the institution of marriage serves a vital public purpose, as we argue elsewhere on this website. While we agree that the beliefs of a particular religion should not be established as law, we can easily refute the objection that opposition to same-sex marriage is only religious-based.

Religious Beliefs in the Public Square

While there are strong secular arguments against same-sex marriage, it is true that many people in the United States oppose same-sex marriage in full or in part because of their religious beliefs. However, many people have opposed abolition of slavery, racial discrimination, capital punishment, abortion, and a host of other perceived moral wrongs for deeply religious reasons. It is natural (and good) that our deepest religious beliefs would influence our moral convictions about what constitutes sound law or good public policy.

The political doctrine of the separation of church and state simply means that the institutions of the church and the institutions of government should be kept separate; that is, the government cannot rightfully tell churches what to teach or how to operate, nor should religious franchises be given the power to tax, make law, or other government activities. Religious belief and practice should never be compelled. But nothing about this doctrine holds that people of religious faith cannot vote, debate, hold office, or even discharge their legal obligations in a way that is influenced by their religious convictions.

While secular reasoning is often more broadly persuasive in a pluralistic society, to argue that it is inherently more objective would be mistaken. Moral convictions that arise from both secular and religious worldviews inevitably rest on irreducible premises. For example, one person’s religious belief in the sanctity of human life is identical to another person’s secular belief in animal rights in at least two ways: neither can be “proven” in any reasonably objective sense, and both rest entirely on moral intuitions and personal conviction.

Religious beliefs can be, and have been, used to support both the conjugal and revisionist views on marriage; is it really right to conclude that one perspective ought to be treated as inadmissible in public debate because more of its adherents hold to it for religious reasons? To argue that secular reasoning should be privileged as the only socially acceptable means of justifying one’s policy preferences is raw prejudice against religious believers, and ignores the many productive (and ultimately good) ways in which religious convictions have informed political perspectives for centuries.

Conclusion

In summary, the objection fails in two ways: (1) Traditional marriage laws are not intrinsically religious in nature. Many irreligious and religious individuals have made thoroughly secular arguments for an opposite-sex marriage institution, including the legal arguments made in defense of existing marriage laws. (2) The idea that people should not ever ground their public policy preferences in their religious beliefs is misguided and misunderstands the doctrine of the separation of church and state in the first place. Religious beliefs can (and should) inform our deepest convictions about what constitutes sound law and good public policy, and should not be singled out for exclusion from the public conversation on marriage.


References

  1. See Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, “What Is Marriage?” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Volume 32, Issue 1, and John Finnis, “Law, Morality, and Sexual Orientation,” printed in John Corvino (ed.), Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality, (Lanham-New York-London, Rowman and Littlefield 1997) pp. 31-43.
  2. See, for example, this interview with the head of a gay group that opposes same-sex marriage, or this group as well.

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